In Washington: Pulling back from the brink

As bad as things are, there's still only one way out - talking.

hamas in gaza city 298 a (photo credit: AP)
hamas in gaza city 298 a
(photo credit: AP)
It took an argument with someone holding opposing views to clarify my own. While I was waiting for the subway, I was accosted by a former colleague whose views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had shifted far rightward in recent years. "I guess even you won't be able to come up with a silver lining this week. As I keep telling you, you can't negotiate with these people. They only understand the iron fist," he said. I replied that I would indeed have a hard time being optimistic in this week's column, not when I can't stop thinking about 19-year old Cpl. Gilad Shalit being held somewhere in Gaza by fanatics who say they will kill him unless their demands are met. In its short time in office, Hamas has demonstrated utter recklessness, not only for Israeli lives but just as much for the lives of Palestinians. No cause for optimism there, especially as it now appears that Damascus-based Khaled Mashaal, a dedicated terrorist, may be the real leader of the organization, not the seemingly more realistic Gaza-based leadership. But none of that means, I told my former colleague, that negotiations are pointless. On the contrary, it is impossible to imagine any end to the violence without negotiations, unless of course you believe that one of the two peoples can utterly eradicate the other. My interlocutor jumped all over me, thinking that I was suggesting a prisoner exchange to free Shalit. He lectured me on how neither Israel nor the United States "should ever negotiate with terrorists." He was especially vehement in support of what he believed was Israel's policy not to negotiate even at the cost of a prisoner's life. I told him that, in my opinion, such issues are never black and white. As a parent, I certainly would hope that if one of my children was being held, my government would do whatever it could to free him, including negotiate. I also pointed out that Israel has released thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchanges over the years. Israel has resorted to prisoner exchanges over and over again because, to their credit, the Israeli people would do pretty much anything to secure the release of one of their youths. I have little doubt that if the government believes that negotiations, followed by a prisoner release, would result in the freeing of Shalit, it would negotiate. And it should. But I didn't choose to argue that point with my former colleague, who abandoned that part of the discussion when I pointed out Israel's history of negotiating prisoner releases. MORE SIGNIFICANT to him, and to me, was his larger point. It is one I often hear from those who simply don't believe in negotiations with the Palestinians. "The thing that bothers me," he said, "is when people say that there are various strains in Hamas and that Israel and the United States should deal with the moderates. But there are no moderates. These guys aren't Abu Mazen. Even Arafat was better." The irony here is that the last time I saw this fellow, he was outraged at my insistence that the US and Israel should do much more to help Mahmoud Abbas succeed as Palestinian Authority president. I had just written a column in which I said that unless we demonstrated to the Palestinian people that Abbas could deliver, they would turn to Hamas. Back then, my friend argued that Abbas was not a "partner for peace." But now, with Hamas in power, he was nostalgic for him. The fact is that for my former colleague there never will be a Palestinian leader who is a "partner for peace." Even during the quietest days of Oslo, he was calling Palestinians terrorists. He is more comfortable with the current situation, a situation unlikely to lead to the compromises by Israel that he opposes. But at the end of the proverbial day, Israel is going to have to find Palestinians it can work with. The alternative is resuming direct control of and responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza, and all its people. Not only would that not solve the security problem for Israelis, it would destroy Israel's economy, which has been gaining strength recently. Israel cannot afford endless war or reoccupation. And neither can the Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people are already paying a terrible price for those Kassam rockets, and now the capture of a young soldier. Only by the most perverted logic could anyone believe that it is a price worth paying. The current situation, a situation that is essentially mad, is the product of too many people clinging for too long to the outmoded belief that violence is going to produce anything but more violence. And it is the result of the misbegotten belief that preserving the status quo is safer than thinking creatively about ways to change it. Once again, Israelis and Palestinians are at the brink. Friends of both need to tell them it is time to pull back. The writer is the director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.